Fort des Dunes in Leffrinckoucke, Northern France. A well presented and preserved historic Fort, built in 1878 in the Northern region of France, close to Dunkirk (Dunkerque.) The Fort des Dunes was built as the westernmost frontier fort in the Séré de Rivières system, (a system of fortifications built along the coast and frontiers of France, and named after its creator, Raymond Adolphe Séré de Rivières.)
The fort, built within the sand dunes, yes that’s right within the sand dunes, is quite hidden from sight though it is 27 metres (89 ft) high to the top of the sand and grass covered roof. The English Channel is but a few hundred metres from the fort’s defences and a further fortification, that of the Zuydcoote Battery can be seen and explored from the beach. The fort is surrounded by a kind of dry moat that itself is protected by caponiers a kind of defensive structure, and the main fort has a drawbridge over the moat. From a distance we couldn’t even see the fort and in fact drove past twice before finding our way to Fort des Dunes, so I guess it’s form of camouflage is still working well.
On arrival at Fort des Dunes, the first sombre sight was the military grave yard just outside the fort, a sobering reminder of its history and of the many lives lost here during world war ll.
We were staying at Bray Dunes close to the Belgian border during our time in France and a visit to Fort des Dunes was a short drive away, parking at the site is free and there are paths from which to explore the dunes and surrounding areas too. The fort was just opening as we arrived and after first paying our respects to the war graves nearby, my family and I walked across the drawbridge and through the tunnel you see in the photo and took a tour of Fort des Dunes using an audio guide available at reception, they have language options on the unit so we could listen in English.
Fort des Dunes did not see action during WWl but was used as a garrison for reservists and as a munition’s depot. However, during WWll played vital roles in both the early and later years of the war. In 1940, During “Operation Dynamo” when so many French and British soldiers were separated from their units after they arrived in the Dunkirk area, Fort des Dunes was used as Camp des Dunes to process French soldiers and assign them duties. But, on June 1st, 1940 the fort became headquarters to the French 12th Motorized Infantry Division, and on the 2nd of June the fort suffered an aerial attack, 2 bombs exploded right in the yard, killing 12th Motorized Infantry’s General Janssen along with many others. Again, on the 3rd June the fort was hit with 6 more bombs killing up to 200 soldiers and badly damaging the fort. At this point it was decided to move out of the fort to avoid further loss of lives.
German forces took the fort on 4th June following the amazing mass evacuations from the Dunkirk port and the beaches, during Operation Dynamo. Afterwards organised burials of soldiers took place, some of which were entombed where they fell, and re burying them, mostly by prisoners of war or by locals. The fort then became a part of the German’s Atlantic wall which at this point included the Battery Zuydcoote.
At the end of the war 10,000 Germans were taken prisoner on 9 May 1945 but 3,700 Germans were kept behind in the Dunkirk area on mine removal and clean up operations, some of which were kept at Fort des Dunes. One terrible piece of war-time history that took place at Fort des Dunes was the execution of some 6 French resistance members. 8 French resistance members attempted to kill a German soldier at Rosendäel, and the chase led to a house where they were all arrested, one was killed while trying to escape, another badly wounded when a grenade exploded. The remaining French resistance members were held at Fort des Dunes until 6th Sept when 6 were executed in the North ditch and the badly wounded prisoner was euthanized.
The fort was abandoned for around 20 years until in 1978 a local group decided it should be preserved and by 1990 was made habitable. Today it is an amazing place to visit and discover its history, much more than I write here and of course to learn a little about the history of WWll in Northern France. The fort is a multitude of experiences and knowing the past of this vast sprawling location, is also an emotional one.
The audio guide was quite comprehensive and was so immersive as I explored the fort and to some extent travelled back in time, through the changing times and events at Fort des Dunes as the audio guide takes the visitor around the site, from the earlier days at the fort as a barracks, and as a munitions store, through to the 1940’s as the tour took us through the court yard and into the area where the barracks kitchens were and then up onto the roof with views over the vast sand dunes, looking almost to the sea, before returning back into the court yard.
The electronic guide then directs into the main building where you’ll find out about the in-depth history of the area and of course Operation Dynamo, there is a room dedicated to the operation, a map of the Dunkirk area, the beaches and the routes that were taken to flee the horrors of the Dunkirk landings.
A superb fort and a fully immersive experience at Fort des Dunes, Leffrinckoucke that is unforgettable, and with more history than I can engage with here and a physical experience you will only get by visiting in person, a lovely reception and gift shop with very helpful and friendly staff. This is an area I would love to return to again in the future if by chance my family and I revisit Northern France.